I’m a sucker for these types of videos and I figured a few of you might be too. Some people question whether a gun will fire under water and what the effects might be. As you’ll see in the below video, the gases released during discharge react differently in water than they do in air but the video does give you some idea of where and how the gases and GSR are expelled from the firearm. Obviously you could never recover GSR from a suspect firing a gun under water but the video is neat nonetheless. I thought it was especially interesting to see the cycling of the weapon was faster under water than in air too. Enjoy.
I love introducing you to cutting edge technologies that may turn your reader’s heads and make them turn the page. Forensics has never been a stagnant science. Dozens of researchers are pushing envelopes and making the imaginable come to fruition. One such device is the M-Vac. This recent addition to the CSI tool kit may revolutionize how we search for evidence and recover DNA that was previously unrecoverable. Vacuums are nothing new to the collection of trace evidence. I need to write a post on the history of the trace evidence vacuum which was introduced at early as the 1930′s. The M-Vac is the next generation trace evidence vacuum designed specifically for DNA collection.
Forensic scientists have made great progress in the collection, analysis, and turn around time of DNA testing in the last decade. The M-Vac uses a wet-vacuum method to release stubborn cells from evidence like clothing, textured pistol grips, and other surfaces where the samples may be hard to get at with swabs. It uses a DNA-free buffer solution that is applied and then recovered in one step through the application wand. The solution carrying the DNA samples is then deposited in a sterile collection bottle that can be tested for DNA profiles. The wand allows the CSIs to cover large areas and get into nooks and crannies that prove too difficult for swabs. Validation studies have indicated that the M-Vac collects 39 times more DNA than swabbing!
I’ve included a short video below that demonstrates some collection methods. One sampling procedure that wasn’t covered was the autopsy. I’m not sure what possible roadblocks may exist (if any) but it seems to me that this sampling method may prove very valuable in sampling certain areas of the victim’s body. Imagine sampling the neck in a strangulation case, genitals or breasts in a sexual assault, the wrists or ankles in a body dump where the victim was dragged, or even the victim’s hair. You may also get results from the outsole of a shoe used in a stomping or the hood of a vehicle in a hit and run. As the video indicates, this tech may open up new leads in cold cases as well. The possibilities are pretty endless it seems.
If your next novel deals with DNA evidence you might consider using a device like this. I suspect there are a number of CSIs and detectives who may be unaware of this technology. Imagine their surprise at reading about it in your novel.
Okay, this is not really a forensic topic but recently I’ve been hearing some criticism of police dispatchers and since I am friends with several of them I thought I’d take a moment to comment on the position. In The Scent of Fear, one of my second tier characters is a dispatcher and friend of my heroine Sarah Richards. The dispatcher in the Amanda Berry case made national news (perhaps international) after taking the call from the kidnapped victim in Cleveland, Ohio. While I’m not going to share my opinion on that call I will address some of the common complaints levied at dispatchers from some in the public. Folks that don’t listen to dispatchers on a daily basis often believe dispatchers are dispassionate, even disinterested in the events coming through their headsets. While there are certainly unprofessional dispatchers out there, my experience with them has been good. It’s a tough job. You have to handle everything from the absurd (calling 911 to complain that their fast food order is wrong), to the crazy (my dog is an alien sent to spy on me), to the most stressful calls you can imagine like officer (read: friend) down or instructing an eight-year-old on CPR for their dying mother. That’s just a Tuesday in some jurisdictions mind you. It takes a special kind of professional.
I remember one time sitting in my office listening to the police radio when an active shooter began his rampage in his neighborhood. The part I remember most was hearing my friend on the SWAT team being pinned down and taking fire. Bullets were tearing through the wall just above his head and there was nothing I could do but listen. I prayed to hear his voice again through the static and thankfully he came out of it all uninjured. The other thing I remembered was how calm the dispatcher was in relaying the information to other responders. She was also his friend and I suspect she felt many of the emotions I did. She was just better at handling them than I was. If you think about it; a dispatcher that looses it over a stressful call wouldn’t be very helpful to the officers that need him or her to multi-task the various tasks they need to do in order to support patrol operations. What sounds to some like a lack of concern or recognition of the severity of the situation is often just the dispatcher being the professional they’re required to be.
Another common complaint I see if that the dispatcher asks too many questions. “Shut up and send the officers!” “Quit asking so many stupid questions!” Have you ever thought that while listening to a radio dispatch on the news? The truth is that dispatchers can handle multiple duties at once. They can alert and dispatch officers over their mobile data stations (computers) while talking to the victim on the phone. Other dispatchers in the call center can also monitor the call and may be dispatching additional units, fire, ambulance, etc. They just aren’t talking on the same line so you never hear that portion of the call. Handling such calls takes concentration but that’s what they are trained to do. They have to go through a selection process in the same way officers do and the ones that can’t handle stressful multi-tasking often don’t get the job.
The video below is a nice tribute to one of the most thankless jobs in law enforcement. If you are writing a dispatch character you might want to consider how their job affects their personality. How they handle stress and how they communicate with those around them. Dispatchers can form a tight bond with the officers they work with and may know those officers better than the watch commander.
I’ve written before about the role of the forensic entomologist in death investigations. These professionals can provide critical information regarding the time since colonization and postmortem processes. One aspect of their analysis that is being utilized for frequently is the use of insects (like maggots) to screen for the presence of drugs or toxins (like Malathion). Before I get into the process, let’s discuss why this type of testing might be undertaken. Obviously, the presence of illicit drugs like cocaine, heroine, MDMA, or amphetamines, may provide critical information about a possible cause of death, criminal activity, and victimology. In the same light, the presence of prescription drugs may also shed light on the victim and their physical or mental health. Likewise, the absence of certain drugs may also reveal important clues surrounding the victim’s state of health. Did they need the medication to maintain a certain quality of life or health status?
Why not just review their medical records? First, the victim may not have a complete documented medical history. Some people gain access to prescription drugs through illegal or unethical means. Family members (even spouses or parents) may be unaware of certain health conditions. Additionally, the victim may not be identified at the crime scene. Insects like maggots can removes significant biomass during the decomposition process and some victim’s don’t have any identification on them. We may be able to extract DNA but that will be of little help if their profile is not on file. We may be able to construct certain features or details about their lives based on their physical possessions (clothing size, piercings, tattoos, etc.) but the presence of certain drugs or toxins may provide that extra clue that helps to narrow down missing person profiles.
The concept of using insects for drug screening is pretty straight forward. While the victim’s tissues and fluids (blood, urine) degrade through decomposition; the larvae do not. In effect, they act as mini-reservoirs. Eventually they will undergo some kind of metamorphosis but if they are found on a body they can be tested. As adults they tend to eliminate the toxins rather quickly but even trace amounts of some drugs have been found in recently emerged adult flies. Some research has even detected drugs in beetle frass (excrement) and fly puparia years after death. Testing is begun by crushing or grinding the insect samples in something like a mortar and pestle. There are a number of different tests that can then be performed including Gas Chromatography / Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS), Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), and radioimmunoassay (RIA). In many ways the testing sample is treated like any other biological tissue. The effects of various drugs and toxins on the rate of biological development (of the larvae) is not fully known. These types of exams primarily screen for the presence or absence of drugs and toxins. The effects of such substances on insect biology is another matter the entomologist must consider when estimating the postmortem interval.
As authors you may consider using insects as a testing source for drugs or toxins, especially when other tissues are not viable. Consider too the absence of certain prescribed drugs that may affect the victim’s behavior or general health. The drugs may be illegal or they may have been stolen by the suspect from another family member, friend, or co-worker. The presence or absence of drugs or toxins may also reveal a “unique” data point in the unidentified victim’s profile to compare against missing person’s records, medical records, or even criminal modus operandi (such as the use of a date rape drug or poisoning by mercury). You probably already have an interesting application of drugs or toxins in your storyline. The use of insects to test for those substances will provide for some interesting dialog between characters or plot twists for your readers.
I love being out in the woods. I don’t mind walking established trails but it takes no convincing to get me “off trail”. One of the reasons I love getting off the beaten path is that I get to see things most people don’t. Wild critters, small brooks, or hidden canyons. I sit and wonder how long it has been since another person was seeing what I’m seeing.Most of the time I’m not that far away from the rest of those enjoying the outdoors. Maybe just over a hill or around a bend but, it makes all the difference in the experience. I often think “wow”, I would have never seen that bear, bobcat, or elk if I hadn’t come this way.
In the modern world we’re conditioned to follow certain paths. Sidewalks, roads, green belts, subways, etc. Think about it…don’t you take the same path to work everyday? What about the grocerie store, gas station, or your child’s school? Partly this is because we’ve determined the easiest, most efficient, route. But even when you’re going somewhere new you generally stay on some kind of path right? Don’t most of you hesitate to cross open space unless there is a trail? Even then, if there is a sign prohibiting it, most people won’t. This type of thinking limits the world we see and experience. Criminals aren’t restrained by thinking.
One of the toughest things to learn as a new CSI is to stop thinking like everyone else and start thinking like a criminal. You have to divorce yourself from even the most basic and accepted thoughts. Criminals have to conduct their “business” and get from point A to point B but, some of them don’t want to draw attention to themselves (just like animals). At least the successful ones don’t. They like to conduct their business in the “shadows” or “off the beaten path”. There is a whole world of activity going on right now…off that beaten path. These are worlds within worlds and it is the job of the CSI to find them (at least as they pertain to criminal activity).
These are places where most of us have no reason to go. Culverts, abandoned buildings, tunnels, and over grown gulches. Sometimes these places are right under our noses. I remember being a young officer and getting a call about a “satanic” alter being found at a movie theater. Turns out there was a “hidden” room above the concession stand but below the projector room. In the old days they used the room to cut film reels. It hadn’t been used in decades for that reason but someone was using it now. There was no way to tell how long it had been in use but that’s not my point. The point is that the activities were going on right under everyone’s noses because no one ever had reason to go in there. The room was “off limits”.
Don’t forget about these “hidden worlds” in your writing. I’ve made it a point in my novels to include such places and I think it adds a powerful layer of mystery to the settings. These places are even more frightening when your characters stumble upon them for the first time. It may be a detective, teenage runaway, or concerned parent. The possibilities are endless and can be driven by the structure itself. The video below is apparently from an old missile silo. Imagine the types of crimes that could be going on in such a place and how hard it would be for someone to stumble upon it? Might be a good idea for a novel eh?
Dr. Jane Bock is a forensic botanist and researcher from Colorado affiliated with a number of professional organizations. She has been conducting field research for over four decades and has received numerous awards including the Ralph W. Schreiber conservation award and Hazel Barnes Prize. I first met Dr. Bock while working in NecroSearch International. She has worked numerous murder cases across the nation and is very approachable for those seeking additional information. The field of forensic botany is fascinating. From looking at last meal evidence to disturbances from burial, plant material can provide great insight to an investigation. If you’ve never thought of including botanical evidence in one of your novels you might reconsider after reading this interview. Her new book Handbook of Forensic Botany will be released this year.
F4F: Historically, how long have plants been used in forensic investigations?
BOCK: Forensic botany reaches far back in Western history. Plato, in his writing (Phaedo 399 BCE), describes the suicide of his teacher, Socrates, in detail. Socrates chose to commit suicide by imbibing poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). Plato’s description of Socrates’ symptoms fits exactly the pattern of poison hemlock poisoning today in the US and Europe. Forensic botany became ‘scientific’ with the inventions of the printing press (1440 AD) and the light microscope lenses (1590 AD). Using a microscopic lens, Robert Hooke described the cellular nature of cork cells, later published in his book, Micrographia. The earliest books describing plant cell types followed shortly. Forensic botany came of age in the US in 1934 when botanical evidence was used to solve the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy.
Botanical evidence in courts today is accepted readily through both Frye and Dauburt examinations provided the witness shows competence in botanical knowledge. My cases have involved knowledge from three subdivisions of botany: plant anatomy, plant taxonomy, and plant ecology.
F4F: How are plants used in last meal evidence analysis?
BOCK: Dr. David O. Norris and I fostered the identification of food plant cells in criminal investigations and trials. Plant cells usually are enclosed in cellulose walls. These complex carbohydrate walls are virtually indestructible. They pass through the human digestive tract unchanged in their sizes and shapes. It does not matter if the plant was consumed raw, canned, frozen or cooked. Each food plant has cells that are distinctive in size and shape. We commonly examine plant cells from stomach contents. There is a rough time table for how long each stage of the human digestive process takes, and the time for stomach digestion usually is within a couple hours of consumption, then the material passes to the small intestine. This can be helpful in some homicides in estimating the time of death.
Identifying food plant cells from the digestive tract and feces of a homicide victim may link the victim to a certain place where a meal was taken and may link a suspect’s presence to that same place. Two recent cases involved the plant foods found in the stomach contents of people whose exact diets were known (hospital and prison). When the records of the day’s meals were compared with stomach contents, we learned which meal was the victim’s last even though a suspect claimed the person had been killed after a later meal.
F4F: What are the most common types of analysis you’re asked to conduct for law enforcement?
BOCK: Plant Taxonomy: assigning the correct scientific plant name to a plant or plant fragment. Such identification can link a victim to a suspect through plant fragments found in clothes or vehicles. Such evidence also can show a place where a victim and/or suspect visited. what residences These cases are relatively common. Plant Ecology: the relationship between plants and their environments. Here, you test ideas about where plant materials originated. In a case, a truck contained fragments from a mountain setting, but the trucker claimed the vehicle never had left the prairie. This along with other evidence led to a murder conviction.
F4F: Some of the readers may be unaware of the use of pollen, seeds, and diatoms in forensic investigations. Can you talk a little about how they may be used to link a suspect to a crime scene?
BOCK: Most plants are made up of stems, roots, and leaves, plus reproductive parts (flower parts and seeds). These all have cellulose cell walls. However, other organisms have cell walls comprised of other substances. These plant structures can fall into the forensic botanist’s purview, and include pollen, spores, and certain microorganisms. The presence of pollen in association with a cold case homicide can suggest a season when a crime took place because the shedding of pollen is highly seasonal. Diatoms have cell walls of silica and are virtually universal in all bodies of water from mud puddles to oceans. However, species distribution and relative abundances among species have given strong evidence of the source the water in a case. Here, the water in the victim’s lungs indicated that he had been in a body of water that was distinctive from the location described by the suspect.
F4F: You’ve been involved with a number of high profile murder cases over the years. Is there any one case involving plant evidence that really stands out to you and why?
BOCK: High profile cases can be difficult if the media have publicized widely their decision about guilt. For example, in the defense for the Casey Anthony case, making trips to the courthouse involved running a gauntlet of reporters and other supporters of a guilty verdict yelling my name. Also, e-mail threats for the expert if you are involved with the ‘unpopular’ side. The most renowned high profile murder case I’ve worked occurred over 10 years ago and has not been brought to trial. Therefore, it is an ongoing case and my evidence cannot be discussed here. This continues to weigh heavily on me because of what my partner and I know from our evidence. In a recent cold case in Pennsylvania where the victim was an 80-year old woman, we determined the contents her last meal. It had served as the medium for the poison that killed her. We supplied a deposition and this led to a confession of the persons who killed her. Had it gone to trial it would have been very high profile.
F4F: What’s on the horizon in forensic botany? Are there new technologies that are poised to open areas of inquiry that were previously unknown?
BOCK: A worrisome aspect of this field is that it is underutilized and under represented. The approaches described above are simple, inexpensive, and readily accepted in courts. Many more people with forensic interests must train themselves in botany. DNA can be useful in forensic botany, but our lab does not deal with it. It is not especially useful in plant identifications because there are at least 300,000 plant species., and most of their DNA patterns are not known. What DNA can do is link plant fragments from a single plant to a suspect to a victim, to a vehicle, to a place. This works well. DNA analysis is being streamlined and will become more so. Already some kits are showing up so that a major laboratory may not be required.
I am happy to discuss forensic botany with interested individuals, and also to point them to appropriate scientific literature.
Real life CSIs sometimes have to find innovative ways to capture evidence. There are a ton of commercial products available for nearly every type of evidence but Murphy has a tendency to rear his ugly head at the most inopportune times (like a homicide scene). Cameras break, your partner forgot to re-stock supplies, or you simply run out. In most cases you can’t just run down to the local Walmart and pick up exactly what you need. Good CSIs learn to develop alternative methods of collecting and preserving evidence (if possible) in the event you need to have a fall back plan. Some purists may scoff at such an idea but in my opinion it’s better to have something collected than nothing collected. The need to use unconventional collection methods is probably more likely for your private detective or amateur detective character. These folks may not have an impressive array of CSI gear because they don’t have to concern themselves with those matters often.
I’ve noted before that footwear evidence is one of the most commonly overlooked categories of physical evidence at a crime scene. Some of that is due to a lack of training, lack of awareness, or simply not having the proper equipment. In real life, the crime lab isn’t called to every crime scene. Usually we just go to the major scenes. Patrol officers don’t carry around electro-static dust print lifters, alternate light sources, and other specialized equipment so sometimes footwear evidence gets overlooked. One of the better surfaces to find two dimensional footwear impressions at crime scenes is paper. Paper may get scattered on the floor during a ransacking or it may just be trash on the floor (like in a warehouse). You can even find these dust prints on broken drywall, carpeting, or doors that have been kicked. Either way it can hold valuable clues. These impressions can be latent (invisible) and need some degree of processing to make visible again.
So what is your amateur detective to do when he/she spots a sheet of paper at the crime scene and thinks there’s a footwear impression on it? One simple process is to use blue carbon paper to make a lift. For some reason, black carbon paper isn’t as good. The process is really quite easy. You start by taking the paper evidence and securing it to a hard flat surface. Taping the corners works well. Then you lay a sheet of blue carbon paper down over the area you think may hold the dust print. Cover that carbon sheet with a manilla file folder or pad of paper and use a 4″ rubber roller to “press” the dust print onto the blue carbon paper. Simply roll the rubber roller firmly back and forth over the area a few times to transfer the image.
Once that is done the detective can flip over the carbon paper and use a strong oblique light (like a flashlight) to see the image in a darkened room. Any windowless room (like a powder room) works well. Voila! The invisible shoe print is now visible. It may be possible to individualize an impression to a particular shoe but even knowing the make and model of the shoe can be helpful in an investigation. If your prime suspect only wears Nike and the shoe in question is a cowboy boot you may need to search for another suspect right? In the end, a professional CSI would probably get better results using a gel lifter or ESDL but keep this trick in mind when writing your scenes. If your “detective” is unprepared then this might be a good option to recover evidence others may have missed.
There are basically two types of blood spatter; forward and back. Notice I didn’t say “splatter“. Blood spatter is caused when an object impacts a body and forces the blood to break up into smaller droplets. The majority of these droplets are then projected either forward (with direction of force) or backward (opposite the direction of force) essentially. Generally speaking, there is more forward spatter than back spatter in an incident and the blood will disperse in a “cone effect”. The amount of back spatter is dependent on both the energy of the impact and the amount of blood already present at the impact site. For example, a gunshot can create back spatter even when there is no preceding injury. This is influenced by other factors too though. Clothing can “trap” much of the back spatter depending on the type and layers of clothing and location of the wound. If the wound area is not covered with clothing (like the head) then you can see more back spatter. CSIs commonly see some degree of back spatter on the shooting hand in gunshot suicides with head wounds.
The degree of back spatter on the subject varies wildly though. A number of factors influence the deposition of the blood such as subject and victim body positions, wound position relative to subject, distance between subject and wound, the amount of energy causing the spatter, intervening objects (like shooting through a window), and the presence or absence of blood at the impact site just to name a few! The size of the resulting blood droplets varies too. Gunshots and explosions can produce very tiny droplets (with a diameter of 1mm or less) while other impact events can produce larger droplets from 2mm up to 10mm and even larger. You may find back spatter on hands, faces, ears, hair, clothing, weapons, furniture, or practically anywhere near the impact event. It can even be found on items that have been moved to another room (as in a staging). With gunshots, you may find spatter up to four feet from the impact site. In theory, you could find them even further away if there is sufficient air current such as high wind or even the close proximity of a fan.
So how would you use this in a novel? Back spatter can be washed from hands and clothing or even the victim (think of a dog or cat licking the victim). Tiny spatter is very difficult to see however. You could easily have a detective, spouse, or dry cleaner find these tiny spots on a garment, vehicle seat, or window blinds. If on clothing, consider putting the spatter on something like socks, undershirt, or underwear that would have been covered during the suspect’s version of events (or denial of events). That not only places them at the scene but could also place them in a state of undress at the time of blood loss. You get the picture. Be creative and use your imagination to produce a big plot twist.